How therapy can help survive an affair

I read an article which listed a whole load of reasons why you should get out of a relationship. It wasn’t a particularly in depth piece, and had lots to commend it (always end abusive and manipulative relationships, for example).

But the author was also very clear that “cheating” is an absolute and unequivocal reason to leave a relationship, in the same way abuse is. There can be no doubt that infidelity is a breach of trust and generally causes considerable pain to the betrayed partner. Often, this pain is too great to recover from and the relationship is over.

But the couples I see find themselves in a different position. The betrayed partner often finds themselves not wanting the relationship to end, despite the hurt. The person who has had the affair is often shocked by their own behaviour and seeking to understand it and repair the damage that has been caused.

The beauty of youth is that we “know” everything. And we are very certain about what we know and that we will always know this in every situation. And then we get a bit older and start to realise the world is a complex and murky place, with little room for absolutes. People who were very firm that they would “never” tolerate infidelity, find themselves in a situation where that is exactly what they are trying to do. This erosion of previously held certainties is one of the important things we work on in the therapeutic process.

This part of the process is about understanding the context of the affair. Affairs happen for many reasons, and they happen to perfectly decent, honourable people. Understanding the context doesn’t provide an “excuse”. The wanderer needs to take responsibility for the decisions they made. But it helps the couple understand how they got to that position, and what needs to change to make the relationship better in the future.

Understanding the context, whilst taking responsibility, can help the adulterer be very clear about whether this is likely to happen again. And this is an essential part of rebuilding the trust. It also helps the betrayed partner think about forgiveness, if that is what they want to do. And this is where it can be confusing when confronted with previously held solid beliefs. Looking at the individual circumstances of the couple and their relationship history provides a framework against which decisions about forgiveness can be made.

Each relationship is unique. The complex interplay of societal factors, family background and interpersonal emotional processing means there is not a one size fits all answer to most problems. Relationship therapy is a way for couples to explore these things when faced with something like an affair so that they can make the best decisions for themselves based on their set of circumstances and not just apply blanket thinking to all situations regardless of the context or cost.